Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘EAPSI’

On Beijing and Loving China

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 2:19 pm

I’ve lived in China for about 16 months now over a span of 8 years – 11 months in Xiamen, 3 months in Jilin, 2 in Beijing.  As my time in Beijing draws to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on this city and this country. 

I first came to China in 2007 as part of an Engineers Without Borders group, to work on sustainable energy project in China’s northeast.  I spent 9 days on a farm on the border of Russia and North Korea, building a wind turbine.  We lived with an American family who spoke Chinese for us, and I made exactly one Chinese friend, Zaibin, because he spoke English.  I don’t know exactly why I wanted to come back – it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the language, yet.  Perhaps the food – Hunchun has the best lamb and beef sticks I’ve ever eaten – or the project itself, the way we “built things out of stuff”.

But for whatever reason, when I left my return was never in question.  The next summer I went back to the same place, this time for two months.  That time, it was definitely the food.  On the farm, we had the best of all worlds, it seemed like – crisp, cold water straight from the spring to the faucet; fresh milk from our cows and enough to make butter, ice cream, and cheese when we had the time; eggs from our chickens, some of which we slaughtered and ate; bread from wheat the girls ground every day.  Korean lunch prepared by Adjima, the farm cook, and generally some sort of Western dinner prepared by a rotating cast except for the one or two times a week we went into town to a Chinese, Korean, or Russian restaurant.  

But I also fell in love with the people and, through them, the language as well.  Most days, I headed a few kilometers across the farm to the shepherd’s residence where my project was based, walking or hitchhiking on the workers’ sanlunche.  I was kilometers away from the nearest English speaker, and was left to my own devices to get my design across to the workers.  From a combination of grunting and pointing, we progressed to simple sentences (你来帮我, come help me, was the first sentence I understood).  I bought a children’s picture dictionary at the supermarket and they were more patient with me, as I clumsily learned my first few hundred words, than most people are with their own children.  I thought these people were exceptional, and they were, but this patience and understanding with learners of their language seems to be a fairly common trait among Chinese, to various extents.  

Xiao Zhang, Xiao Li, Lao Liu, and Han XiaoGuang were the first Chinese people I loved.  And because Chinese was the way that I communicated with them, I think I started to love it too.  I remember Timothy expressing surprise at how quickly I learned – the fastest he’d seen, he said – because language learning seemed like a male thing, stemming from a desire to dominate.  For me, it’s a desire to communicate, to interact with the people around me.  When people ask me why I’m studying Chinese, and I don’t want to give the whole story, I jokingly respond that “I like to talk, and it gives me 1.3 billion other people to talk to.”  It’s a joke . . . kind of.

It was on this trip, and even more so on the next – a quick 10-day follow-up visit to the farm that fall that was extended by a couple snowbound days in Yanji – that I experienced and embraced the adventure of living in China.  When I travel, I “adventure” towards a destination – hoping to eventually get there, but remaining open to experimental modes of travel and possibly even alternate destinations if they come up as options or necessities.  But even outside of travel, adventuring is a way of living, really, being open to the joy and surprises that await when you allow yourself to be flexible and have “yes” as your default answer.  

When I was offered a scholarship to study in China for a year, this seemed like the ultimate adventure.  I delayed graduation, sublet my apartment, and moved to a tropical island to study something completely outside of my major.  Xiamen was a daily feast of all the things that I loved about China – wonderful people, both those native to the country and those drawn to it for various reasons; delicious food that often surprised and always seemed to be worth more than it cost; constant improvement in my language abilities and constant positive feedback on my progress; and an endless supply of adventures.  

The magical spell of Xiamen was further enhanced by my freedom in most respects.  I had no long-term commitments, no pre-existing demands on my time, no purpose other than to learn Chinese – which is to say, to live in China and experience it fully.

It was hard to leave Xiamen after that year.  I remember mostly wanting to go back to Tulsa to prove to others and myself that I still wanted to be an engineer, that Chinese wasn’t everything to me now.  But it was my first time leaving China without knowing when I would be back.  

As it turned out, nearly five years would pass before I came back again, this time to Beijing.  It’s hard to isolate variables and identify what differences I observe are due to the temporal distance, and which to the spatial, but for the moment suffice to say that there have been differences.

I haven’t loved Beijing.  I don’t tend to love big cities anyway, so it’s not too much a surprise, but even among big cities Beijing is a  tough one to love.  It was bad enough, that sometime during Week 3, I did some soul-searching, asking myself if this was it, if China had lost its charm for me.  

A month later, most of the factors that prompted that despair having changed, I’m still asking that question, although I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no’.  It’s hard for me to articulate why.  Maybe there are just enough threads connecting my experience in Beijing to happier times elsewhere – the people I’ve gotten to know are as wonderful as those I’ve known elsewhere, the food is still delicious and still cheaper than the US, and I am pleasantly surprised almost daily to discover that I can speak and understand and read Chinese – that I can recognize the good things as being Chinese, and attribute the more negative ones to the city only.

I’m glad for the opportunity to experience Beijing, although I am grateful on literally a daily basis that I got to spend a year in Xiamen and two months in Beijing, instead of the other way around.  I am also glad for the opportunity to think critically about my feelings about China, to examine the reasons I’ve wanted to come back for so long and to consider whether or not they still hold.  

Beijing is definitely the third-best city that I’ve lived in, but honestly after Xiamen and Hunchun, most cities in China would be lucky to get third place.  I’m not in China for the history or the politics or the economics, so Beijing was never going to be my jam.  Most of the things it’s known for (the clear exceptions being the Great Wall and roast duck) are just not important to me, and some things I value are missing (here I guess I’m referring to breathable air and any discernible trace of beauty).

Probably my favorite thing about Beijing is that, as a big city and major hub, people are always passing through at one point or another.  This is one of my favorite things about the Bay Area, too – people just tend to end up here, for a day or a few years.  It was great to reunite with a friend from California now working at Apple in Beijing; family friends who visited with the son they adopted from China; a Stanford friend in town for a conference.  This never happened in Xiamen.  And Hunchun?  Don’t make me laugh.  

Unfortunately, this goes for me, too, though.  I’m confident that there will be plenty of opportunities to come back to China, but many of them will be to come to Beijing.  

My secondary objectives in coming to Beijing with EAPSI this summer (the primary objective being the project) were to make professional contacts and work on my technical Chinese.  My tertiary objectives were to make friends, eat well, sing, and dance.  On this basis, my trip was a great success, and it’s due mostly to my labmates.  If it hasn’t been clear from my writings, my labmates were the shining stars of my time here at Tsinghua.  Their friendliness, kindness, generosity, patience, sense of humor, and assistance in every facet of my life never failed to put a smile on my face.  

So I guess it comes down to this.  China’s greatest asset and biggest draw for me is its people.  They’re really the only thing that’s making it hard to leave Beijing, but they sure are making it hard.  

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China-US Young Scientist Forum

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 10:52 am

The China-US Young Scientist Forum was not my favorite part of the EAPSI experience.  Perhaps least fave, actually.  The whole day just left me wondering what the point was.  I was excited to hear what my colleagues had done in the far-flung parts of China that they had been in, but . . . . Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day started with us on a bus at 7:20 for the hour-long slog through Beijing traffic to a different [read: nicer] hotel.  Best part was getting to catch up with said colleagues from said far-flung parts of China.  My favorite story: one girl was in Yunnan, and during orientation week I gave her some tips on survival when you don’t know Chinese.  For instance, in a restaurant, look around and tell the waiter you want “what they’re having”, basically.  She told me it worked for her so many times, but once the family whose food she pointed to insisted on giving her that actual meal, as if she were starving instead of unable to communicate.  Haha!

There was no food at the hotel when we got there.  Come on, 8am start time?  I don’t even drink coffee and that seemed cruel.  The first activity was short research presentations given in small groups (the 40 of us divided into three groups of ~13).  Each person had about 5 minutes, which was insane, but largely resulted in us hearing the big-picture motivation and takeaways, which is more enjoyable than getting bogged down in details.  I say “largely” because one person went way over time due to a completely unecessary explanation of, among other things, eigenvalues and the meaning of every parameter in their very complicated set of equations.  The most important skill on display today seemed to be knowing your audience – what they want to hear, and what they are capable of understanding.  

After these short summaries, we all gathered together to hear a summary of the summaries.  Six students, two from each group, gave 20-minute overviews of the ~13 presentations they had heard.  It was like a public game of research telephone, and for all the valiant effort the reporters demonstrated, it was pretty painful to listen to.  Also, since this took an hour, we could have heard another twelve 5-minute presentations, which I would have much rather done . . . 

We then had a short ceremony in which we got Certificates of Completion and letters from Ambassador Baucus.  He’s proud of me!  

We had lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel.  It sounds nice, but in Beijing it’s really just a panoramic, 360-degree view of gray.  

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But there was ice cream, and macaroons!  

The afternoon was technically the US-China Young Scientists Forum.  Some of us had brought labmates (Cheng came with me) and some tech people joined for small-group discussions on cross-cultural communication.  (We were also supposed to talk about entrepreneurship, but at least none of the Americans had anything to say so we just ignored that topic.  It was an odd attempt to shove this topic into a seemingly unrelated discussion – where did entrepreneurship come from?  Was Zhongguancun a sponsor?)

This discussion was another example of the excessive summarizing that went on today.  We had a 30-minute discussion, then my fellow reporter and I had 20 minutes to discuss the discussion, then we addressed the entire body to give a 15-minute summary of our discussion.  Thirty minutes of discussion, 45 minutes of summary.  

Our discussion was actually kind of interesting, though.  My Chinese co-reporter was a Uighur man from Xinjiang – as a fellow non-native speaker of Mandarin, we had a sort of shared comraderie that I don’t usually find with Chinese people.  Our group spoke extensively about language, and I heard echoes of thoughts I’ve had over the years.  From American students: I felt like a hassle, When I was there I was forcing them to use their second language.  From Chinese students (actually, from my own labmate Cheng!): I wish we had spoken more English. 

Hearing these views expressed one after the other was very interesting to me.  I attribute my Chinese 80% to the situations I’ve been placed in where I had no choice other than to speak Chinese.  These were difficult moments.  I wasted money, I ate weird stuff that I didn’t like because I ordered wrong, I got on buses going the wrong way, I got taken advantage of, I embarrassed myself on a daily or hourly basis.  The easy times, when I had American friends around or more fluent people with me or Chinese who spoke passable English, I learned nothing.  It’s not just that knowledge comes from struggle – lots of people realize this – but (for language in particular?) if the struggle is avoidable, we will avoid it.  I am weak, and I know it.  If I had studied abroud with a group of American college students, I would not be the Mandarin speaker I am today.  I have paid for my language skills with, if not blood and sweat, definitely tears.  

So, there’s this uncomfortable truth of language learning – it’s a hassle, almost necessarily.  To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “A language-learning opportunity is only a hassle rightly considered. A hassle is only a language-learning opportunity wrongly considered.”  It depends completely on mindset.  When I speak Chinese with my labmates, am I being considerate of them and saving them the hassle of using their second language?  Or am I being selfish, robbing them of the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker?  Cheng surprised me today by saying that she wished we had spoken more English.  I didn’t know quite how to feel about that.  They could – and did – speak English with me any time, and I generally responded in English.  But, it’s a hassle, and unless compelled to do so by outside forces or propelled by habit, people generally avoid hassle.  

It’s all part of the “language tug of war”, which occasionally becomes a “language game of push and shove”.  There’s great potential for arbitrage, here, of course, in which determined language learners seek out native speakers of the target language who prize convenience over fluency, but this is somehow underexploited.  

The other topic of conversation was somewhat related.  One Chinese participant echoed the confusion and perhaps resentment that I’d heard before, about this being an “exchange” program . . . in which no Chinese went to US institutions.  To the American students, this reaction is logical but also slightly ignorant of the reality.  One of my colleagues here said that sometimes he forgets he’s in China, because his average day in Beijing is just like his average day in grad school in Tennessee – get up, go to work, put on headphones to drown out everyone else speaking Chinese.  There are whole labs in the US that are Chinese, from PI to grad students.  Most of us were the first international visitor in our labs.  

We also discussed the topic of self-segregatation, because my co-reporter pointed out that most Chinese students, when they go to the US, hang out with other Chinese students.  (It’s a generalization, but as true as they ever are.  My roommate is Chinese and if she didn’t live with me, I sometimes wonder if she would have a single non-Chinese friend.  There are enough students here from her undergrad alone that she doesn’t need to meet new people and, as I said above, doing so is a hassle that is gratefully avoided when possible.  The number of Chinese students in the US makes it possible.  Blessing or curse?  It’s in the attitude.)  I pointed out that foreigners do it in China; how many nights did my Beijing colleagues spend in American bars with each other?  I love the option of American/Western companionship after a “Bad China Day”, but due to a combination of stubbornness and habit I generally don’t seek it out.  It’s human nature, to seek out the familiar.  Unfortunately.  

Cheng left in the afternoon, and we said goodbye until we meet in the US soon!

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Then the worst part of the day – a random tour of the Zhongguancun technology park, basically China’s Silicon Valley.  We visited a Maker Lab, and some company that makes cell phone games and I just stood in the back and wondered why we there.  It had been a long day for everyone, made longer when the tour went over schedule.  And more importantly, it had been a long 8 weeks without a single mention of entrepreneurship until today . . . . . . 

Then a long bus ride back to the hotel.  There was a bit of nostalgia when our bus did a U-turn in the middle of the busy intersection by our hotel.  Probably the last time for that!

We got home at 7.  Ugh.  I had major packing to do.  The other EAPSI girl who was at Tsinghua came over to chat while I packed.  After seven weeks of being politely ignored, she became really popular her last week in the lab.  It was a little sad, because she really didn’t have a lot of great interactions with her labmates.  Her stories were like, “One time we talked about the weather.”  It reminded me of the Mean Girls quote – “She punched me in the face once.  It was awesome.”

I finished packing at 10 and took my two larger suitcases over to Tsinghua to drop them off in the lab.  I ran into Zhao Yan and, when I expressed surprise at finding him there on a Friday night, he said that 10 was still quite early.  #chinesegradstudentlife

I walked across campus to get a taxi, and went straight to Liudaokou to join some other EAPSIers for karaoke.  It was a very different karaoke experience than my others – all Americans except for one Chinese guy, and almost exclusively English songs.  All upbeat ones, too, none of these people-crying-and-rain-pouring-down-windows music videos.  I ended with I’m on a Boat :)

Last Tsinghua Meal

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2015 at 12:33 pm

I went to work early today, to take advantage of the last day I can run simulations.  I was also supposed to meet with Profs. Feng and Li about the next step, but there was a miscommunication.  So instead, I met with just Prof. Feng in the afternoon.  

I had lunch with my Romanian coteacher, Tamas, to say goodbye.  As we walked outside after lunch, the loudest crack of thunder I’ve ever heard scared the crap out of me, and was immediately followed by an absolute downpour.  Ugh, 墨迹天气, my weather app, is the worst.  Of course, today was the day I only brought an umbrella.  I barely made it to a nearby building, where I waited out the rain shopping for a few more Tsinghua souvenirs – and another rain coat.  

In the evening, I had my last meal at the Tsinghua cafeteria.  The food selection seemed so fraught with importance, and then I choked and got what I thought was pork but was actually bamboo shoots, haha.  Also, two people bought watermelon, so we ate so much watermelon . . . 

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Afterwards, I realized I had to clean up my desk and transfer data, which took longer than I expected.  Then we went to play mahjong again!  Two of my EAPSI friends were interested but bailed, so it ended up being me, Zu Yan, Cheng, and her boyfriend.  I did a lot better this time.  I think the time off to process things helped – I literally dreamt of Zu Yan teaching me more rules last night, so I know my brain was working on it all night.  

We played until a little after midnight.  I still got to bed waaaay earlier than some EAPSI people . . . As tomorrow is the closing ceremony, all the non-Beijingers have to get back here by tomorrow.  Easier said than done, because apparently the noon thunderstorm in Beijing threw the air traffic situation in the entire country into complete disarray.  People sat on the tarmac for hours, were delayed or canceled multiple times, etc.  For a while, I wondered if it was just going to be the 12 of us Beijingers for the ceremony tomorrow, but I think the last flight landed around 4am.  

Learning Mahjong

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am

There are a ton of donkey restaurants in Beijing; apparently it’s a Hebei thing.  It had been on my dwindling Beijing to-do list for a while, so this morning I went to get 驴肉火烧.  Contrary to what I was told, it turns out that donkey sandwiches are not a breakfast food, so I’ll have try again tomorrow.  

Today I brought in a bunch more things I couldn’t return or didn’t use up.  Here, have some conditioner I didn’t like, and some q-tips.  Seriously, I give the best gifts.

I also brought in the rest of the s’mores ingredients.  I just realized this morning that they have bunsen burners in the lab – we could have been eating s’mores all day err’day!  

Prof. Feng’s son came in to the lab today and ate lunch with us.  He’s a sophomore or junior in high school and is taller than me – a veritable giant.  Zhao Yan asked him if his biggest problem is that every girl likes him, haha.  He’s tall, left-handed, and was born in Germany (while Feng was doing a post-doc at Dusseldorf) . . . an eerie number of similarities with my own brother!  

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I made a complete mess of myself while eating watermelon today.  We have watermelon after lunch and dinner about 87% of the time.  I’ve easily eaten more watermelon in two months here than I have in the rest of my life combined.  Unfortunately, watermelon is not my talent – I just can’t eat it without getting soaked.  But, I have my own gifts.  My labmates here (like people everywhere, really) are fascinated by my extraordinary talents at sleeping and frowning.  Sleeping and frowning are my talents.  Today I learned how to turn pictures into stickers, so now I can send my frown in WeChat messages with one tap!  

It was supposed to rain today at noon.  Of course, my weather app has said this literally every day for the last two weeks.  Around noon, it says in the morning.  At noon, it becomes 1; at 1, rain is predicted at 2.  At some point, they give up and say, it will rain tonight.  I think we’ve had rain twice since it began this game two weeks ago – basically as accurate as a broken clock.  Today I taught my labmates the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  And they taught me a word for liar: 啃爹.  

In the afternoon, Prof. Feng asked if I would like to join the meeting with a visiting professor that Zu Yan is going to work with next month.  Oh man, that was the most awkward meeting I have ever been in.  I tried to break the ice by speaking English with him as they set up, but he didn’t seem that interested in talking to me.  Then, Prof. Du and Zu Yan presented, both in English, which I’d never heard either of them speak.  They did a good job, although their work is definitely outside my field and I couldn’t do much more than smile and nod.  But the visiting professor had arrived in China two days ago and was obviously not over jet lag.  He couldn’t stay awake, which led to long silences as they waited for him to wake up and answer a question of theirs.  There were also weird moments when he was asleep, I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I wondered, if you speak English and no one understands it, does it still make a sound?

At various points during this, Prof. Feng answered the phone, printed off a short story for me to read, and gave me a gift of tea and showed me how to steep it.  Aaah it was so awkward.

Afterwards, Prof. Feng suggested that I present.  So I also got to experience the awkwardness of speaking English at a sleeping American while a bunch of Chinese listen.  He seemed interested when he was awake, though, and we ended up speaking at length about the EAPSI program, and my experiences in China.

After me, HaoYuan and Chang Zheng talked about their research on spider silk.  It was also the first time I’d heard them speak English, although to be honest, it was about the first time either of them had talked to me except for that graduation dinner.  When I told them tomorrow is my last day, they seemed sad to see me go.  I’m not sure why, but I guess that’s cool?

Today I finally gave out the Stanford shirts I brought from home.  I probably waited too long to do this, but I was waiting for a time when all the people I wanted to give them to were there, and no one else, which never happened.  I also underestimated the number of girls that would be in my lab, and how small they would be.  Sigh.

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Zu Yan wanted to take me to get donkey to thank me for helping her with her presentation, but she took too long so I went with Zhao Yan instead.  It was good – the most similar thing to a sandwhich or taco that i’ve had here in China.  

Zu Yan joined us at the donkey place.  She was exuberant, having finished finished the English presentation, and wanted to celebrate.  She wanted to play mahjong, and I was definitely in!  We coerced Zhao Yan into joining us (Zu Yan s a social instigator like me, so he really stood no change), but that still left us 三缺一 (three, missing one).  Luckily, GuoYang was done packing and agreed to come over.

We went to a mahjong place near the south gate, a pretty seedy place, the kind where you could picture opium being smoked.  (But only cigarettes were smoked.  I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke, but when I asked about it, Zu Yan pointed to a No Smoking sign.  As if that meant anything . . . It struck me as a very Chinese response, to defer to the official word instead of conceding to reality.)

We were in a little room with a table – the coolest table I’ve ever seen.  It’s an automatic mahjong table – you press a button in the middle and a circle rises up, revealing an opening under the table.  You shove all the tiles in there, press the button again, and the circle lowers to close the table.  While the tiles are swished around underneath, shuffled and restacked for you, a new set rises up out of the table.  Within seconds of finishing a game, you’re ready to play the next one.  It’s only good for one thing, but it does that thing perfectly.

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The rules of mahjong vary across China.  Zu Yan is from Heilongjiang and GuoYang is from Chongqing, so they first had to agree on rules – the simplest, I think, for my sake.  Even so, mahjong is definitely the hardest thing I’ve done yet in China.  Part of it is that I had to learn the rules in Chinese – my brain works slower when it has to process two things at once, like language and logic.  Another reason is that mahjong does not follow the some of the basic rules that most games I’m familiar with do.  For instance – play moves counterclockwise, which never stopped confusing me; you can form series (123 or the like in the same suite) but not sets (111 from different suites), and even then only ever three in a row; and there are multiple ways to win (in our “simple” rules, either four sets of 3 and a pair, or seven pairs).  

The worst part was that, by the time I got my tiles flipped over and arranged in some logical order, a few tiles had already been played, and they inevitably included one that I needed.  They were going too fast for me, although they said they were actually playing slow!

Zu Yan, bless her heart, kept trying to help me.  She’d look at my tiles sometimes and offer advice.  Often, the advice would include assessing the tiles that other people had already played, so as to not give them what they want.  I laughed so hard at this.  I literally hadn’t looked at another players’ hand in several games.  I was barely holding it together at this point – I did not have the brain power to even consider the other players.

The low point of the night was definitely when GuoYang asked if I had won, and was right.  I hadn’t even realized!  He couldn’t even see most of my tiles, just guessed based on the ones I’d picked up and how I had them arranged.  How embarrassing.  

The high point of the night was when I won the last hand on my own!!

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Other notes:

if I never hear 国洋还是郭洋 (guōyáng or guóyáng?) again in my life, I will be happy.  

Once they asked me if recognized the characters on the tiles 發 and 萬.  They’re traditional, but also really common (the simplified forms are 发 and 万 – much easier!!).  I introduced them to the phrase, “bitch, please”.

Also GuoYang is really good at mahjong, which was annoying, so I taught them “Who invited him?”  He was really really good, and I was terrible, so I almost taught them “rage quit” as well . . . 

GuoYang called the direction of play “inverse clockwise”.  I laughed.  Counter clockwise, I said.  Would people understand me? he asked.  Yes, they’ll understand, but they’ll laugh.

I made a joke about us being 赌博的读博的人 (gambling PhD students).  It’s funny because the two words, “gamble” and “PhD student”, are identical except for one tone.  See, this is the humor only foreigners like me can come up with, because we play fast and loose with tones.  

 

We stopped playing around midnight or one – that table makes it so easy to play without noticing the passing of time!  I still had to pack after getting home – I’d been hoping to be able to take my extra luggage to the lab tomorrow, but I’m going to have to make an extra trip.  As it was, I didn’t get to sleep until 3am.  

Smoked Sichuan Duck

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2015 at 10:34 am

After a day of working on Abaqus simulations, I took off around 5 to meet the other Beijingers at the subway station.  From there we headed to Olympic Park, to a restaurant called 湄洲东坡 for dinner.   An EAPSI alum from 2004 (the first EAPSI in China!) who is still working in China, treated us to dinner.  The food was great, honestly probably the best meal I’ve had in Beijing.  The sweet and sour fish was ridiculous and delicious, the smoked Sichuan duck might even beat Beijing duck for me, and the eggplant was on point.  

We also got a chance to talk about our EAPSI experience and the upcoming Young Scientists Forum after the closing ceremony next Friday.  It seems a little bit ridiculous – 5 minute talks, followed by 1-minute summaries of the talks – but, thus is China sometimes.

I got home around 8:30 and spent the evening planning out my remaining week.  We still have no internet at the hotel (apparently someone “borrowed” the router yesterday, with no indication of when we’ll get it back) so I had to do this all on my phone.  But, I found a place near the train station to have lunch on Sunday (treating the friends who treated me the first few weeks) so I can get my train tickets afterwards.  And found a couple potential places to take my labmates on Monday or Tuesday.  I also sorted out the gifts I brought.  How does 2 pounds of chocolate, 8 shirts, and 3 bottles of wine suddenly seem insufficient?  

Today I learned: On 点评, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp, Burger King has 5 stars.  

DARE Fellows in Beijing!

In Uncategorized on July 23, 2015 at 10:05 am

I biked to Beijing University today to have lunch with a Stanford student an an alumni.  We’re connected through the DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) fellowship program.  The guy was member of the 2nd cohort and has been a postdoc here for almost four years!  The girl is in the 8th cohort with me and is here in Beijing for a conference.  We had a nice lunch, sharing China experiences and talking a bit about DARE.  

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It was a long, hot bike ride over there and back.  We met at the southwest gate, which, as I work on the northeast side of Tsinghua, is all the way across both campuses, over 5k.  

In the evening, though, it was really comfortable.  Biking to dinner was really enjoyable!  As I worked after dinner, I saw the sun setting through the window.  This is NOT a usual occurence here in Beijing.  Here the sky is usually one shade of gray during the day, and the entire sky gradually dims to a darker shade of gray in the evening.  It was strange to see pinks and oranges in the sky, and shadows on the ground.

I couldn’t keep working.  For over a week, I’d been thinking that I wasn’t going to see blue sky in Beijing anymore, and I just couldn’t miss this.  I left work really early (7pm!!) and biked home, listening to Sarah Bareilles’ “Many the Miles”, my sunset anthem.  A far cry from the evenings I used to watch the sun set on the beautiful beaches of Xiamen, but I’ll take what I can get.

I also had to stop by the tailor to pick up my clothes.  I had him fix up four articles of clothing – small things, like missing buttoms or torn seams.  He was super friendly – no clothing problem is a problem, he said! – and he makes me want to go back there for more things.  Maybe I will get another qipao?

Bad China Day

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2015 at 10:11 am

Today was a Bad China Day.  I woke up and tried to take a shower before going to Mass, but we had only cold water.  At the desk, they said a pipe had broken and they didn’t know when it would be fixed.  What do I do then?I asked, and they shrugged.  

The subway seemed extra uncomfortable today.  I hadn’t taken a shower because of the water situation, but what was everyone else’s excuse?  It felt like it had been weeks since I had last breathed fresh air.  

I left at 8:40 and somehow got to the church at 9:30.  Last week I left at 8:40 and had to take a taxi halfway to arrive on time.  They say that doing the same thing twice and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but in my experience, that’s just China.

On the way back to the subway after Mass, a guy tried to sell me a turtle.  This guy is always there on my way to and from Mass, carrying a giant turtle by a few strings.  I asked him if it was a pet, and he said he was trying to sell it.  Where did you get it, I asked.  From the water.  What would I do with it?  Put it back in the water, he said.  This sounds like a super easy way to make 3,000元, if you ask me.  He also told me I could release it into the pool at my house, which I obviously have . . . I would have loved to buy the turtle, just to take it away from him.  He stepped on it to show me, I don’t know, how strong it was?  It looked very sad, half-dead really.  

I have to change subway lines at 西直门, where the Beijing North train station is.  I also have to get the physical tickets for all the train tickets I’ve bought online, so I thought it would be convenient to do that today.  Unfortunately, as soon as I swiped my card to leave the subway, I realized that I hadn’t brought my passport, and therefore wouldn’t be able to get my tickets. 

I immediately knew that I had Made a Terrible Mistake.  As this is the train station subway stop, it was absolutely mobbed with people.  The line to get back into the subway was absolutely ridiculous.  I ended up waiting in line for half an hour, which was exceptionally irritating because the cause for delay was the security checkpoint, which is a textbook example of security theater.  (I usually just carry all my metal objects in my hands as I put my bag on the conveyer belt.)  

By the time I got back to Wudaokou, I needed to eat my feelings.  A trip to Coco and Paris Baguette fixed that, and I went back to the hotel for the rest of the day.  A nap, finally getting caught up on my Chinese book, and a little bit of work was just what I needed. 

In the evening, we had an EAPSI pizza party atthe hotel.  We sat outside at the gazebo and just chatted for a few hours.  I love these conversations, sharing funny stories and comparing observations and musing on cultural differences.  We all talked about how different our experience has been from the guy who spoke to us at orientation.  None of us have given talks at other universities, the only times people have left Beijing besides for research trips was one guy who spent the night somewhere while climbing.  We all spent the first week preparing presentations for group meeting that we could have done ahead of time had we known.  Sigh.

I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2015 at 10:24 am

I got my first shipment from 亚马孙 (amazon.cn) today! I asked GuoYang to help me buy this book that one of my students recommended the other day, 藏在这个世界的优美. I looked it up online and saw that it was only 28元 in China, so I decided to just buy it – there’s no way I’d be able to get it for $5 once I left China! I’ve been reading a book in another language every year for the past four years, and I think this might be next year’s book. I still have the second and third parts of the Three Body trilogy left, but I’m not sure if I want to spend 3 years of my life reading them (also they’re bigger than the first one, which is already a challenge for me). This could be a nice change of pace. It’s 330 pages, with lots of spaces and pictures!, so it’s totally doable in a year.

I gave GuoYang 30元 for the book, and he insisted on giving me change. He eventually scrounged up 4元, but then I looked at the bill and saw that it was actually 28.5元, so I gave him back three of the bills. When I use them for my banking purposes, I’m fine with rounding up, but they don’t like it. I tell them it’s a tip, but they protest. I guess they don’t want to come across as greedy, but in the same way I don’t want to come across as stingy, which is how I would feel if I counted out exactly 28元 and 5角. So, I guess we’re stuck doing this song and dance every time I pay them for things.

I worked hard all afternoon on these wrinkling instability derivations. Ugh, so tedious. I’m trying to get from this:

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to something like this:

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By the end of the day, I was close, except for I have an extra k and n, and My value for A is off by an order of magnitude. I could so use a foosball break right now . . .

After dinner, I convinced a few of the guys to play board games. Then, as I set up the island of Catan, I realized that I had made A Terrible Mistake – I’d brought the plastic bag with the hexes, number tiles, and dice, but forgot the box with the cards in it. Turns out the Chinese also have a way to say “eat your feelings” . . .

We played poker instead. Texas Hold’m (德州扑克), to be specific. They had to teach me, actually – the rules and the terminology. There were a few rough patches – my first time dealing, I turned over the wrong number of cards (and ended up teaching them “you had one job”) and I didn’t know a flush was a thing, so I folded once when I would have won a lot of money (and they learned “fml”). But, somehow I ended up doing alright and winning!

Mabe it was after that time with the flush, when Zhao Yan imitated me saying 哎呀,太麻烦了(ugh, so annoying). I guess this is kind of my thing. I’m really good at picking up on people’s verbal tics, although it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I often end up adopting them myself. I wonder if people develop these things easier in a foreign language, these phrases becoming a sort of life-preserver to count on when swimming in the sea of another language. My labmates, mostly international students, are just too easy to call out. Anyway, my time has come here. It’s hilarious, though, as soon as he said it, we all knew he was mimicking me. And pretty well, too . . .

We had snacks – warm beer and grape juice, potato chips (which I learned today use a different word for potato, just to confuse me), 辣条 (spicy sticks? a pretty accurate description, actually), and milk-flavored sunflower seeds. The last smelled like something was baking, so I kept getting distracted by the prospect of an oven somewhere nearby.

After the game ended, we sat around and talked a bit longer. GuoYang has been talking about going to America sometime, but today (after he learned we have to pay to download music) he thinks maybe he won’t. It would be too hard to adjust to the US, he said, harder than it was for me to adjust to China. I took issue with this! If, by any miracle, I come across as totally adjusted to life in China it’s because they’re seeing me at the end of over a year in China, during five different trips in three different parts of the country. This knowledge and comfort was hard-won, I assured them. They asked for examples. Without even plumbing the depths of the bathroom situation, I talked about food (hadn’t said the word ‘cheese’ in like a month) and drink (as I sipped on a beer that hadn’t been cold even when I’d opened it), the internet (VPNs are an essential of life here), and customs (the heirarchy! the Chinese way of declining by ignoring!). For the last, I gave examples – the way that people will tell me where to go when I ask for directions, even when they have no idea what I’m looking for or where it is. And the email I sent Prof. Feng, asking for introductions at other universities, which he never responded to. They all nodded; this made sense to them.

I find these meta-cultural conversations very interesting. Tipping is very external and obvious and easy to talk about. Talking about how we talk is difficult. But I took the opportunity to muse out loud . . . I’ve learned some of these customs and do my best to follow sometimes, but my heart and mind are still American. I’m not sure how I come across in Chinese, I told them – too forward or direct, too loud, disrespectful? They said I feel very comfortable to them, but who really knows.

On the way home, I mused further on GuoYang’s waning desire to go to the US because of the adjustment. The adjustment is half of the fun, isn’t it? I’ve discovered things that I like about America, that I didn’t even realize were “American” (ice in drinks!, credit cards all day e’rrday), that I didn’t even realize had alternatives. I’ve also discovered things that I love about other countries, that I didn’t even know were options (German windows, no tipping anywhere else, hair washing in China). I’ve reflected upon myself, learned more about myself, become more myself (the “I will talk to anyone” thing is really a product of China, I think). As my comfort zone has expanded, I’ve realized that fewer and fewer things are actually necessary for me to take with me when I leave home – a towel big enough for my body and hair, prescription medication, a favorite book – and more and more things that my home doesn’t feel complete without – a full set of chopsticks, my Chinese mink blanket. The adjustments I’ve gone through give me confidence that I can cope with future adjustments, which is source of comfort when going through those adjustment periods, even in strange and alien lands like California (true story).

Also on the way home, I made another Terrible Mistake. It was barely drizzling, so I took my awesome rain coat off (seriously, this thing is a biker’s dream! Check it out:)

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A few minutes later, the rain started getting heavier. Of course, I kept getting closer to home so I decided to tough it out. By the time I was in the alley (the last few blocks before the hotel), it was a straight downpour and I had to take my glasses off to have any hope of seeing where I was going. The good news is, I finally got a chance to use the phrase 落汤鸡 (soaked like a chicken in a soup pot).

I spent a few minutes on amazon.cn looking for presents for my three closest friends here – GuoYang, Zhao Yan, and Cheng. GuoYang is easy; I recommended the book “River of Doubt” to him but it’s 100元 here in China – a lot for him but a $15 gift is within my price range. Zhao Yan is the only one who drinks besides me, so I’m thinking a bottle of Fireball or American Honey. Cheng is the hardest – she’s coming to the US in October to do something similar to what I’m doing here, at MIT. What’s something that she should definitely have when she gets to the US? I’m thinking about a baking cookbook . . .

Haha, then I realize: a book, liquor, and baking? Basically my favorite things.

Straightforward

In Uncategorized on July 3, 2015 at 10:25 am

I skipped this morning’s seminar on the fracture mechanics of nano-paper (not really my thing even in English) and worked instead.  I’ve spent most of this week working through the derivations in a paper that’s similar to what we want to do.  (I have to understand where all the equations come from in this analysis of a single material before I can do it in two.)  Some of it’s easy, but some of it’s not, and I’d say I have about 80% of it now.  Today I spent an [really, another] hour trying to figure out how to get something that the authors said was “straightforward to obtain”.  Actual quote:

it is also straightforward to obtain

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Phrases like “tedious but straightforward” generally strike fear into my heart.  I always wonder if it means the author saw it somewhere, and assumes it must be straightforward but knows it to be tedious, and so has not done the derivation independently.  I think these guys did, though, and I got it eventually.  Yay!

I went to lunch with the guys and got cold mixed noodles, so I had my food first.  I took advantage of this first-time occurence to buy four cups of Sprite for each of us.  They’re always getting watermelon for dessert, or occasional treats like Sprite or ice cream for everyone, but between my restricted meal card and general lack of a clue as to what’s going on (example: I still don’t know where they actually buy the watermelon), I’ve never been the one to buy them.  It was nice to do something for them for once.  

Over lunch, I told them about the events of yesterday.  I told them about the party, and how it was about America’s national parks.  There was some confusion about this, because I was describing the different events and activities they had, and which park they were representing.  America has more than one national park? they asked.  Um, yes.  They only knew about Yellowstone!   I think the name is what confuses them; they know about the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but they thought Yellowstone National Park was like Our National Park, so I tried to explain that “national park” is more like a category.  

I also told them about the events of Sanlitun.  They confirmed that we got screwed.  How would you have fake bills, they asked – anything from an ATM is trustworthy, apparently.  They said if someone says to your face that a bill is fake, then it probably is, but if they disappear with your money and come back to tell you it’s fake, then you’re being scammed.  I asked, but it wasn’t clear to me if this wouldn’t happen to them because they’re not foreigners, or if it wouldn’t happen to them because they wouldn’t let someone out of sight with their money.  Either way . . . it wouldn’t have happened to them.  

I stayed late at work, and discovered that they turn off all the hallway lights after 8 or so.  There will still tons of students working, though.  Fun Friday night!  

Today I learned: 

The Chinese words for senator (参议员), wetland (湿地), eigenvalue (特征值), and constitutive relation (本构关系).  You just can’t learn words like that in a classroom!

What Do You Do Here?

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Now that I’ve finally got my computer set up and am working, perhaps I should talk a little about why I’m in Beijing?  

The official abstract for my NSF EAPSI grant is: 

EAPSI: Investigation of the wrinkling and buckling behavior of layered soft materials, with applications in the developing brain.

During the third trimester of gestation, the human brain evolves from having a mostly smooth surface to the characteristic ’wrinkled’ appearance of the adult brain. How does this happen, and why does it sometimes go wrong? The mechanics community has been interested in these questions for decades, attempting to model the brain as a thin, stiff, growing layer (gray matter) attached to a thicker, softer layer (white matter). Recent mechanical tests, however, have revealed that gray matter is actually slightly less stiff than the underlying white matter, challenging many prior models and assumptions. Through collaboration with Dr. Feng Xi-Qiao of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, an expert in the wrinkling and buckling of soft films, this project will explore the behavior of thin growing layers on substrates of a similar stiffness. This research will lead to a greater understanding of brain development in light of these recent findings.

For a stiff growing layer on a soft substrate, the formation of sinusoidal waves is expected, while the growth of a soft layer on a stiffer substrate will lead to creases with pinched valleys. The transition between waves and creases happens gradually in the region of interest for brain tissue. Using both analytical and numerical approaches, this research will explore the behavior of soft layered materials with stiffness ratios close to unity. Numerical simulations will be performed in the finite element software Abaqus, using the built-in linear perturbation analysis as well as user-defined material models that simulate volumetric growth.

This was written for lay people (especially the first paragraph) so I’m assuming this is all crystal clear to you, right?

If not . . . Okay, so I’m a mechanical engineer, and I study the brain.  Yeah, it’s weird.  My field, more specifically, is solid mechanics, which is the study of how solids respond to forces (as opposed to fluid mechanics, which is the study of how fluids react to forces).  Even more specifically, I do computational (as opposed to experimental) solid mechanics, which means I make mathematical or computer models of objects in order to predict how they will respond to forces.  Even more specifically, I do computational biomechanics, so the objects I study are biological systems.  And, for one level of specificity beyond that, the group I work in at Stanford focuses on biological systems that grow (add mass) or remodel (change their physical properties).

During my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, I spent four years studying the behavior of engineering materials, like steel and concrete.  These are super important, as we build houses and bridges out of them and stuff.  They’re also fairly simple (well, at least in hindsight).  Under normal conditions, their behavior is well-known and reliable.  

Picture an ordinary steel pipe.  If you compress it (squeeze it from both ends), it will get shorter, exhibiting a linear elastic response.  “Linear” means that if you doubled the load on it (squeezed twice as hard), it would deform twice as much (shorten by twice as much).  “Elastic” means that if you unloaded it (stopped squeezing), it would return to its original length immediately.  Not that you would probably notice – under normal loading conditions steel exhibits small strain deformation, meaning that its length would change so little that we can assume its new length is approximately the same as its original length.  It is also “homogeneous”, meaning that if you cut it into shorter pipes, each of them would behave identically because the material is the same everywhere.  And finally, it is “isotropic”, meaning that if you cut square out of this steel, you could compress it from side to side or from top to bottom, and it would behave the same.

But, I study the brain.  Many biological materials, including the brain, differ from engineering materials in a few major ways.  They are generally not linear, elastic, small-strain, homogeneous, or isotropic.  Instead, they are usually “nonlinear”, meaning that as you compress or stretch them, it may get easier or harder to do so.  They may be “viscoelastic”, which means their response depends on how fast you compress or stretch them (like Silly Putty), or “plastic”, which means they don’t return to their original shape when unloaded (think of a paper clip).  Or both!  They can exhibit large strains.  Squeeze some of the skin on your arm together – if you can reduce the distance between your fingers by half, that’s 50% strain, waaay larger than the 0.02% strain range that engineering materials operate in.  They’re usually “inhomogenous” – your bones, for instance, have different densities throughout, in order to bear the weight of your body most efficiently.  And they’re often “anisotropic” – muscles are a great example of a fibrous tissue, with muscle fibers running along their length because the direction in which they contract.  Finally, biological materials can grow, or add mass.  Steel doesn’t do this – if you have some quantity of steel now, you’ll have the same quantity of steel a year from now.  

All of this stuff makes biological materials more difficult (and more interesting?) than engineering materials.  Just like engineering materials, however, biological materials respond to their mechanical environment – the forces they experience acting upon them.  I’m studying the development of the brain, trying to understand what influence mechanical forces have on the development of the wrinkled shape of our brain.  

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A lot of things in computational mechanics start very simply.  Very much like the joke, “assume a spherical cow”, all of my work this summer will likely be on rectangular brains.  This allows us to focus on what we think are the essential characteristics of the brain, at least from a mechanics point of view – there are two materials (a thin layer of gray matter laying on a thicker layer of white matter) and they are connected to each other as they grow.  

Over the last ~30 years of people studying the brain, we thought the thin gray matter layer was stiffer than the white matter.  These equations are fairly easy to solve (on rectangular brains, at least!), especially when the gray matter is a lot stiffer.  When the top layer grows or is compressed (mechanically, the two loadings are the same), the results look something like this, with regular sinusoidal waves.  

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But last year, some colleages of mine tested animal brains – literally, got them from a slaughterhouse and poked them with a very sensitive machine to see how stiff they were.  They found two things: First of all, brain is less soft than Jello!  More importantly (although probably less likely to be shared as a fun anecdote at your next dinner party), the white and gray matter are pretty much equally stiff; if anything, the white matter is stiffer.

(My dad asked me why it’s so hard to measure the stiffness of the brain – “Come on, it’s 2015!” he said.  Things like steel or aluminum or even wood are easy to test because you can cut perfect shapes, and you can grab on and pull them easily.  It’s much harder to cut a nice cube or bar out of a slowly disintegrating fresh brain, and harder still to stretch or squish it in some measurable, repeatable way.)

Given this, there are a lot of past assumptions that need to be reevaluated.  For layered materials with an “inverse” stiffness ratio (where the substrate is stiffer than the thin layer), you see patterns more like this, with creases developing under loading:

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These two behaviors transition into each other gradually, looking something like this in between:

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The brain lies somewhere around here.  My project this summer is to increase our understanding of the behavior of layered materials with inverse stiffness ratios (the 2nd and 3rd pictures), which I would then apply to my research on brain folding.

Bo Li, one of the professors I’m working with, found a paper that’s similar to what we’re hoping to do – they investigated both wrinkles (the first picture) and creases (the second picture) but in a single material, whereas we are looking at two layers of different materials.  I spent the day working through the first part of the paper, making sure I understand what they did and looking for the parts that we will have to change for our purposes.  It was nice to have a very concrete task and get a glimpse of an outcome similar to what we’re hoping for.  

 

It kind of rained today, which was nice for two reasons.  First of all, the sky had a legitimate reason for being gray, and actually had some cloud-like texture to it instead of its usual appearance, which has all the variety of a concrete wall.  Secondly, rain usually brings cleaner air.  (Which, I can’t help thinking, means that the rain is washing the pollution out of the sky.  It’s a wonder the raindrops don’t burn my skin!)  Look at what happened after Friday night’s storm: 

Screenshot 2015 06 27 16 40 40

Too bad we weren’t outside from 10pm to 1am, when the air was so nice!  I’m hopeful that today’s improvement will last a bit longer . . . 

This evening, I tried to Skype with my Dad but the hotel internet is terrible in the evenings.  It’s kind of absurd to me that I have Skyped with my parents from all over the world, including a “small” Chinese city five years ago, but here in the capital of China in 2015 it’s just too much.  

Today I learned: 

My N100 mask keeps out scents significantly better than my N95 mask.  I bike by a large, open garbage dump on my way to work, and the smell makes me almost throw up every single time I pass it.  I’ve been trying to hold my breath, but I can’t hold it for long enough.  The N100 mask worked well enough that I think I’ll start wearing it, even though it’s too big for my face.